Running a government is not unlike being a soccer mom: you’re a chaperone and chauffeur, you’re in charge of seat belts and timing belts, gas in the car, breakfast in the kids’ bellies, the right uniform(s) washed the night before, the right equipment packed this morning; you remember to pick up the extra cones or water bottles, to pick up some other kids in the car pool; you’re capable of coaching or reffing if needed, but if not you make at least three calls on your cell during the game: to your aging mother and did she take her medicine, to your other sister and how did her second date go with that new guy, and the bakery to order the cake for your best friend’s surprise 40th birthday. It is multitasking to the nth degree, with an almost superhuman awareness of needs and sensibilities. Running a business is more like being a professional field goal kicker: you’re here to do one thing and one thing only.
Like a lot of bad ideas, this one has been in circulation for a while and refuses to just lie down and die: government should operate like a business. This is a canard that at best is stained with an innocence of shortsightedness, historical amnesia, and a simplistic whitewashing of fantastically complicated, spectacularly complex shades of gray. At it worst it is a deleterious agenda that would swap hope floats all boats with a women and children last while sold down the river – getting the shaft without the paddle.
It is simply fallacious to maintain that government should be run like a business, even though – or especially since – a bulwark of conservatives take this credo to their core. There’s a reason why foxes are not the foremen in henhouse construction projects. It is an idea whose time has come and gone — and good riddance. On what grounds do I base such a claim? Let’s start with the late 19th Century, the regulation of railroads and the prevention of monopolies, antitrust legislation against industries. These were the solutions to crises caused by government being led by business.
Or take the early 20th Century: the Teapot Dome Scandal and The Jungle, the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration. For those with the luxury of lax forgetfulness and self-deception, the FTC and FDA probably cry out with big government run amok, or more simply in present-day Republican-speak as “job killers.” Remember the 8-hour day, sick leave, maternity leave, weekends, workers’ comp, and all the rest? Yes, these rights came thanks to unions, but unions came about because workers organized and revolted against abusive practices – discriminatory and dangerous – at the workplace, standard operating procedure because there had been no regulations, because government hadn’t interfered with business, because government often enough was business, particularly in the Midwestern and western territories.
Think about it: as the clarion call for manifest destiny summoned the white man go west, he did so to make money, not to establish town ordinances or public statutes. In other words, we went west to get rich quick, not to spread democracy. And so laws had to be made on the fly by whatever self-appointed magistrates arrived first to make it easier for business to set up shop and trot. The line between government and business was a thin one at best, and badly blurred. The end (maximized profit) justified the means (exploited resources and labor), all of which eventually culminated in the critical mass of the Progressive Era.
Want to govern like a business? Try it out on some ranch in Wyoming first and see how you like it.
Or consider the more modern day Tom DeLay/ Jack Abramoff and Mariana Islands scandal. Likened to “a perfect petri dish of capitalism” by former Majority Leader of the House of Representatives and present convict of a money laundering indictment, Tom DeLay, the Mariana Islands is a territory of the United States which was seized during World War II. Because it is a territory and not a state, it is not subject to the same labor laws. For example, there is no minimum wage, no overtime pay, no safe working conditions. As a result – and thanks to the shameless lobbying efforts by the likes of Jack Abramoff to keep such places unregulated – it has devolved into a moral morass of sweatshops and horrendous acts in the name of base avarice, up to and including child labor, prostitution, and forced abortions. To the owners of these sweatshops and factories, DeLay tellingly adulated, “You are a shining light for what is happening to the Republican Party, and you represent everything that is good about what we are trying to do in America and leading the world in the free-market system.” Free? Is that the freedom of indentured servitude? The freedom to be a second-class human being.
This is what results when government is run like a business. (For a consummate exposé on this story, see here.)
The sad story of the Marianas reminds me some of Pluto and Proserpina. Based largely on the Greek mythology story of Persephone, the soap opera goes like this: Cupid shoots Pluto with an arrow, he falls in “love” with Proserpina and kidnaps her to the underworld. Her mother, Ceres (who happens to be the goddess of agriculture), spends six months in hell looking for her. She is unsuccessful and quite pissed off; consequently, she blights crops and creates deserts. Hades hath no wrath… This simply will not do, so a bargain is struck whereby the daughter/concubine gets to stay with mom for half of the year — notably spring and summer — and Pluto the other half. And this my friends is why everything dies in autumn and is cold and ungrowing in winter. Unless you live in California.
Arguably the most beautiful depiction of this was made out of marble by the amazing Renaissance sculptor, Bernini:
And here is an exquisite detail:
Interestingly, Pluto comes from the Greek for “wealth,” and Proserpina is derived from “prosperity.” What the ancient Greeks understood could sure go a long way today.
Running a government and running a business are entirely distinct entities. They need not be mutually exclusive, but neither should they be seen as synonymous. Personally, I don’t want my government run by businesspeople any more than by religious clerics. (And I sure as hell don’t want it run by military juntas.) I want my government run by people who believe in people – not a worshipped lionization of the individual godhead CEO complex and certainly not by folks who right off the bat tell me I’m inherently flawed, full of sin, and need to be saved. (I have had enough car drivers in real life tell me to go to hell while on my bicycle without being told by my elected officials that I’m going to hell in the afterlife, thank you very much.) Government should be neither the handmaiden to business nor its adversary. Government and business can be self-respecting members in a symbiotic relationship without having to be bedfellows.
You can run sweet-smelling roses through a bull and have it come out the other end as good fodder to then grow more roses, but the reverse ain’t the same. Neither can a former politician with zero experience in business be expected to land a cushy job running a software company or timber industry (unless they’re just a hack). “Experience required” is typically the status quo for private enterprise, but if you’ve got the flow, then you can run for public office, no questions asked. (For more on the audacity of inexperienced businesspeople running for public office, see here.)
Perhaps this is not a weakness of democracy, but rather one of its keener strengths. I don’t mean more money infiltrating the political process – indeed, I can hardly think of what is more mercenary to democracy than the pedaled influence of money; what I mean is that anyone can run for political office, businessman and public school teacher alike. But when’s the last time a kindergarten teacher with no political experience whatsoever ran for presidency?
(Oh man, would that ever be the day! And think about it: if you’re the boss and your charge fails to show up at work, or does a poor job, you can their ass; if you’re their teacher, however, you intervene, make phone calls, schedule meetings, talk to your colleagues, draw up strategies – figure out what needs to be done and try to do something about it. Isn’t that a more reflective qualification for presidency than “you’re fired”? Is that what you’ll say to the U.N. over China’s devaluation of its currency? Go tell the International Atomic Energy Agency to clear out its desk over Iran’s nuclear power plants? We don’t need more years of George W Bush or John “I am Yosemite Sam” Bolton.)
Once again we go back to the Greeks by way of Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” wherein he invokes the ancient poet, Archilochus, who wrote in effect, The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Not unlike the feminine and masculine psyches. And not unlike government and business. Unless or until our species is capable of articulating a new syntax of existence (which I suppose remains to be seen), I think we’d do well to think of the relationship between business and government as a marriage; it works only when both compromise without feeling compromised. But it’s an abusive and ugly thing altogether when one calls all the shots, and the other does its bidding. A “magical kingdom” it won’t be and doesn’t need to be either. But a functional one it can.
(Thanks to Susannah Brown at http://giith.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/hedgehog-or-fox-part-1/ for the slide.)
Having a background in business is not without its advantages, of course. I for one know very little about running a business beyond a lemonade stand on my childhood sidewalk (and even that went belly up). I don’t know the intricacies of running a business or how/ when tax and regulatory policies pit one enterprise at a particular disadvantage. (I don’t like winning or owning things, so business and I simply come from different worlds.) However, isn’t the flipside equally true: how can someone with a background in business be expected to be objective about tax/regulatory policies? If candidate elect used to sit on the board of a coal mining company, chances are s/he will be a bit tarnished with respect to global warming. A background in human resources probably is opposed to one in human services. Productivity and profit are largely irrelevant in the scope of the Pentagon or the EPA, Housing and Urban Development or the Department of Justice, college loans and WIC allocations. You cannot monetize human emotions or amortize human behavior.
This is not to say that government cannot learn to be more efficient and take a cue from the private sector. But it’s no less imperative that business be reminded that there’s a lot more to life than quarterly figures and actuarial gains. To the FBLA and MBA alums considering a run at public office: we’re a sloppy and complicated and contradictory species; deal with it. But do so while going to the opera, museum, or theater. Plant a community garden plot, volunteer at a food pantry, homeless shelter, YWCA, assisted living facility. Go hike in the woods without having to shoot something. And I’ll sit through one of your Power Point presentations on diversifying the portfolio I don’t even have in the first place. Deal?
(And thanks also to Square Paisley Design for the adorable image above.)